Open source your novel
JJ Merelo

Hey JJ. I write code for a living. I was listening to an author describe her writing process on NPR when she said something that applied equally well to writing software as to writing books. It was in reference to writer’s block and she said she didn’t believe in it. She said, “it is better to write crap than nothing at all.” Meaning crappy writing can be iteratively improved but nothing remains nothing.

It made me start thinking about other apparent similarities between writing code and “writing.” This ultimately led to the idea of open source book writing which I had never heard of. So I did some Googling and the only thing I found was your post here. Do you know of any “successful” attempts at this kind of process? Something with a large number of contributors that actually produced something that the public might want to read?

It is an intriguing idea. Or maybe it is the triple espresso I drank before the NPR segment? Initially it seems like a novel process (pun intended). But when you think about it a little more it actually resembles the most archaic mode of storytelling. Before paper and pen people would pass stories down generations and between peers and they would inevitably modify the stories either intentionally or incidentally. In this sense open source book writing would bring story telling back to its original process. A person owning a story is a relatively recent concept after all.

You could do open source writing from scratch or even start from an original work. Most often open source software starts with a significant code base contributed by a single individual that sets up an initial architecture, language, style, etc. Say, Linus Torvalds and Linux for example. (For those that don’t know Linus open sourced his project around 1991 and today it is run on 95% of webservers and 80% of mobile devices with thousands of contributors and 100’s of changes submitted to the source code every day).

The potential to create something incredible using the imagination of thousands of people seems immense to me. (And is proved with Linux). There are significant differences between writing code and writing literature and you might initially think that an open source book would lead to chaos. You could have argued the same thing about software though. Code writers are very opinionated about their craft, certainly no less than writers. And you already have demonstrated proof of concept for open source writing in the fact that all stories were originally open source before the widespread availability of written media.

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